Published on August 12, 2013 by

How agencies sabotage fundraisers – Part 1

One issue has been really annoying me lately.

It’s fundraising agencies who set up in-house fundraisers for failure. This is stupid, unfair and possibly unethical since agencies are supposed to help fundraisers succeed not fail. So how does this happen?

Such agencies come into non-profits and do fundraising audits or something similar. Fundraising audits are good. I’ve got no issue with that.

The agencies spend time talking to the CEO and board about the importance of fundraising. The potential to raise stable income from a pool of individual donors. The need to take care of the charity’s long-term financial needs.

Invariably they produce a nice report with a bunch of recommendations. One is that the organisation hires a fundraiser. I’ve got no problem with that either.

What does annoy me is this.

The agencies do not adequately explain the new fundraiser must be empowered to do their job. With things like a proper database. Some staff, either internal or outsourced. Support from key people. And (shock, horror), a BUDGET.

So what happens is Happy Children Charity goes ahead and employs a fundraiser. Imagine you’re this unfortunate person who begins the job and finds:

  1. You’re expected to raise “as much money as possible”. But your job is “not that important” because the non-profit gets more money from corporates, events or the government.
  2. Excel spreadsheets showing the most income ever raised in a single appeal was $4,000. That’s if you can call a brochure or single-page newsletter with no cover letter, no personalisation and no coupon an appeal.
  3. When asking for funds to develop a really good direct mail appeal, you’re told there is no budget for that. Or to go ask the communications manager for some of her budget. The comms manager is also the (self-appointed) brand and style manager. She reduces your emotive copy with all the bolding, underlining and strong calls to action to corporate speak (if she has a marketing background) or a news-style press release (if she has a journalism background). And that’s before the program staff get to it!
  4. Cooperation from the CEO or the board to do visits with major donor prospects is impossible. The CEO just does not view fundraising as a priority. The board members flatly refuse to go. “I’m not going to beg.” And they won’t donate either. “I’m already giving my time.” And your boss gives you that ever frustrating line, “That stuff is your job.”
  5. The board keeps badgering you to get a bequest program up and running. Fine. You jump through the hoops to develop a bequest brochure. You send it to the CEO for approval. And wait one week. Then a month. Then two months. Your reminders are ignored. Then at the next board meeting, someone says, “Why isn’t the bequest program happening?”

I could go on. These are common problems in many non-profits, which occur even without agencies involved. But what really gets my goat is fundraising agencies who exacerbate this situation.

Hire a fundraiser, but not a real one

When such agencies recommend a charity should “hire a fundraiser”, what they really mean is the charity should hire a dogsbody the agency can boss around. Because the board and CEO are busy and it’s too hard to get them to do the grunt work in fundraising.

They want the non-profit to hire a "fundraiser" who has the responsibility for fundraising. But not someone who can actually fundraise. Because they think this would mean they would not be engaged to develop strategy or creative or any of the other functions an agency can offer. And perhaps then they wouldn’t get the retainers they’re so keen on charging.

Am I being too harsh? Perhaps agencies are not deliberately sabotaging fundraisers. Maybe it happens by accident. But the scenarios I painted above are taken from real non-profits. From real fundraisers who were employed after an agency told their organisation to hire them. They are really struggling to do their jobs.

It’s ironic. Because in the cases I know of, the fundraising agencies have not gotten the work they hoped for. It’s all fallen to the poor new fundraisers. Because the charities’ thinking now is, “We’ve hired this person so we don’t need the agency. Our new fundraiser will do all the direct mail, set up our database, recruit the monthly givers, and set up the bequest program. There’s no need for us managers and board members to visit high value donors because that’s what the fundraiser is for.”

It sounds ludicrous and they may not say it out loud. But that’s the underlying expectation. The end result is a burned out fundraiser. And disillusioned management who then think direct response fundraising “does not work for us”.

What do you think? Have you been the fundraiser or the agency in this situation? Or know of someone who is? Let me know your thoughts below.

In my next post, I will outline 10 things agencies and consultants should tell non-profits about hiring a fundraiser.

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